Jallikattu – An entire week when Tamil Nadu had a solution looking for a problem

It was a pleasant January morning, close to the Marina beach. More than 30,000 people – of all ages, gender and from different parts of the state have been gathering there, every morning for 5 days in a row, to witness the fate of the country pan out.

No, I am not talking about Jallikattu.

The year was 1999. On Sunday, Jan 31st, India was chasing 298 to win the first test against Pakistan and at 50 for 2, things were looking ominous.  As Ravi would say, Wasim bhai was ‘making the ball talk’. Dravid had just survived a close LBW shout to a ball that straightened. The next one held its course. This was followed by arguably one of the most extraordinary deliveries in Test cricket ever, where the ball pitched in line with the leg stump and swung about 3 inches – the geometrically perfect deviation to miss Dravid’s outside edge and still kiss the top of the off stump. The crowd instinctively let out a collective wow, before reality sunk in and plunged them into a sea of silence. They would later give the Pakistan team a standing ovation as they took a victory lap for the only time in a foreign land (no, Dubai is not foreign). It was probably the game that earned them the tag ‘knowledgeable Chennai crowd’ – an acknowledgement that this audience could transcend beyond the naivety of patriotism and embrace the nuance of Sport.

There was nothing nuanced about the Jallikattu protests though, 18 years on. What was a purposeful, focused resistance on a local issue that started in Alanganallur the previous week, was the perfect, lighted matchstick to the dried haystack that was TN. The protest was an epic, public clash of two schools of thought, that were both enormously flawed. Or as Nolan might put it, it was “an unreasonable force colliding with an illogical object”.

The ban on Jallikattu itself was absurd and it needed to be protested. It was fairly evident that the people who wanted to ban the sport spent precious little time understanding it. For example, both the courts and the media often referred to the sport as bull taming – something that the sport doesn’t involve at all. The whole concept of ‘cruelty’ is also extremely subjective in a country where the meat industry is supported by more than two thirds of its population.

But the argument on the street was equally absurd. PeTA was made out to be this monster lobbyist who had bottomless funding and allies in governments across the globe to carry out their desires at will. That’s a bit like saying AK Hangal was the leading man in Sholay. Most people on the beach pronounced the words ‘vaadi vaasal’ for the first time (and most likely the last). And their overall understanding of the economics of the milk industry was poor. The scale of Jallikattu was too small to either create or destroy a milk consumption pattern and the indigenous breeds in question were anyway low yielding ones with no impact on production. It was basically a protest fuelled entirely by WhatsApp forwards. Only, it was no Tahrir square.

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(Image credit:NDTV)

This was certainly not the famed ‘knowledgeable Chennai crowd’. But something else was going on of historical significance.

For the first time ever, the people of TN did something out of character. They decided to give a fuck about governance. For people who are not familiar with the state, this is as rare an occurrence as Salman pursuing a quest for cinematic excellence or Mohanlal doing justice to a poetry reading of Gulzar. You see, TN has always looked at politics through the same lens as cinema. You need a hero, a villain and a large serving of drama. And oh, it is always someone else’s production. And the public’s job in both cases is to step into a box counter, pledge their allegiance and sit back for the entertainment.

Don’t get me wrong. TN has always taken care of itself, with or without a government – be it the Tsunami or the Chennai floods. But we have seldom taken on the Empire’s Dark Star. We never made it personal until January 2017.

And the new found rage was Beautiful. For an entire week, a state remained angry. Angry at a political class that had failed them. Angry at a republic that never respected its culture. Or its language. Angry that they had no more heroes left to trust. Angry that every institution around them (even auto rickshaws) had been compromised by the ruling class. Angry that the river that ‘ran’ through their capital city was actually a metaphor for the decay of the state itself. SO angry that they could not articulate any of these. And ‘Don’t ban Jallikattu’ seemed like a sufficient SOS for everything else.

No wonder we burnt ourselves out in a week. We ran out of articulations and the anger wore us down. The sense of occasion overwhelmed us and much like Nayan Mongia in the said test, the protestors holed out to square leg on the last day of the test.

It has been six months since the Jallikattu protests, but things have only gotten from worse to tragic, for this state. Nieces, nephews, friends and nephews of friends of the departed have announced themselves as the heir to the throne. Not because they want to, but because they can. An actor who has been so scared of failure for two decades continues to be delusional and insult the intelligence of an entire state. The national parties hover over the state like hawks waiting for its injured prey to breath its last. A legislative cabinet whose collective IQ can be challenged by a kindergarten class is settling down to ‘cash in’ on the two remaining years of elected office.

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(image credit: Hindustan Times)

The worst part? None of this is even veiled. This is the most unprecedented, unequivocal ridicule of a citizenry in recent memory. And until now, the said citizenry is still in the theatre, waiting for a climax. Not realizing that the film is about them.

Tamil Nadu can really use a really good revolution now. One that is not naïve but honest. One that is not indifferent but selfish. Or like the ‘Big Boss’ often says, one where we don’t feel leaders are from Mars, but our own streets and colonies.

A revolution that is all rage. And no bull.

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In Kaatru Veliyidai, the auteur’s worst and best work ever!

There is a scene in Kaatru Veliyidai when Dr. Illyas (RJ Balaji’s character) is speaking to Nidhi (Rukmini Vijayakumar) and he asks her how Leela (Aditi Rao) is able to forgive someone as flawed as VC (Karthi) over and over again and manage to have limitless love for him. By the time that scene played out, I had already been squirming in my seat for over half an hour and was truly disconnected from the plot. So the question seemed like something I could stand up and ask the other 249 people in the hall that night. Only, it will not be about Leela but Mani himself. Why is it that we, his audience, continue to look forward and patronise his work, even when it has been many years since we last related to his narrative? I am sure it is not a simple answer.

Kaatru Veliyidai is an overwhelming sensory experience. Ravi Varman (true to his name) brings to us the most visually stunning piece of cinema made in this country in more than a decade, by some distance. But that is not new. Mani has always, almost compulsorily had that extraordinarily beautiful handwriting – cinematography, music or sound design. Except, it comes together in KV, better than ever. There is a scene where the two protagonists are standing next to a jeep on top of a hill, in momentary silence and I would be lying if I told you I did not feel the gush of a cold mountain breeze and shiver a little inside the Chennai theatre. Aditi (aided beautifully by Krithika Nelson’s exquisite dubbing), shines through in a surprisingly impactful performance by a female protagonist. Surprising as they together pull off the ‘looking lost in love’ and ‘sounding lost in love’, with extraordinary authenticity. The scene in which she is humming while making tea for her grandfather and then stepping out at the sound of a fighter jet whizzing past is sublime.

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The one who seems completely out of touch though is the writer himself. The mind that penned films that eventually became pop culture for an entire civilisation, seems to struggle to connect anymore. Not with a different generation, but the one that knows him intimately as a creator. He has always erred on the side of brevity when it comes to dialogues and his characters have mostly been comfortable switching between their native slang and poetic Tamil. This streak in them has mostly been for the effect, for a great one liner that heightens a scene, rather than something that is organic and native to the character itself. And we have always enjoyed that. The prospect of an auteur presenting world class cinema to us, rooted so much in our sensibilities has always been exhilarating and we have lapped it up instantly. And proudly.

However, Tamil cinema has moved on. We are bang in the middle of a unique revolution, one where we have willingly traded aesthetics for the rough edges and compromised poetry for authenticity. It is the age of Kumararaja and Vijay Sethupathi. One where the school of Mahendran has already married that of Mani Ratnam and Balachander has already stepped out onto the fields with Bharathiraja. So no, we cannot relate to a Hero who yells ‘kaatru veliyidai kannamma’ from a mountain top or calls his girlfriend “chella kili” or a character referring to her friend’s love by saying ‘avalukku avar mela oru kannu’. It breaks the spell and if you try, you can hear people shifting in their chairs. It is probably blasphemy, but I have often wondered this week if KV would have resonated better as a film with someone else’s lines.

But it is also among the writer’s best.

In between the unreal lines is a real, significant departure. There is an extraordinary scene in the film when Leela and VC fight over a snow storm – a fight between rationale and romance. This one scene is the film in itself. It is also screen writing at its best.

While Mani is not new to a flawed male protagonist, he has very rarely dived this deep. While Velu Nayakkar or Lallan or Mouna Raagam’s Divya are all flawed, we rooted for them. Much like Brando’s legendary ‘Stanley’ from ‘A Street Car Named Desire’ – a film that is an obvious influence in many of Mani’s leading men. But not this man. Mani’s VC is a case study and I would pay to buy a book on him. And so is his Leela. Flawed in her naivety.  While flawed protagonists by themselves are not ground breaking, what is new is that the love itself is mis-shaped. It is the real Kargil in the script – one fraught with landmines and one that shouldn’t exist.  In a land of stories where Love is above all else, this is a beautiful departure. And for a writer / director who has always been comfortable on the surface of any issue, this is significant. One just wishes that we could have cared about these two people more in the couple of hours we spent with them.

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Which brings me to the craft.

While it is evident that Mani Ratnam’s audience don’t connect with his stories any more, the reason for this ironically seems to be the director actually trying to better himself as a story teller. Exhibit A: In Baradwaj Rangan’s recent book, Mani talks at length about his thought process during the making of Guru: “…you have to, without being hurried and you also have to move in chunks. You cannot have a lot of moments and rush through each of them. Ten years back, may be…..it is better to choose the right ones and linger on them….If we can get it in one simple emotional moment, then it seems enough instead of dwelling…”. There is enough evidence in his last three films to suggest that he is moving towards more “efficiency” in story telling. In this effort to create tighter narratives, I wonder if somehow the soul has been subconsciously traded.

I left the theatre after watching KV, with a sense of longing. Like being unable to relate to your childhood friend anymore. With each passing film, the director and writer that I grew up with, whose work I used to long for, seems to matter less and less. But like with all relationships, I guess we will continue to look forward. Clearly, nothing else explaing the packed theatres on a weekday night in a Chennai suburb. By the time the next release happens, I am sure the Leela in me would have forgiven my VC – my man from Venus Colony!

The deafening silence of words

“Pujara square cut that ball, jumping into the air….the point fielder took the pace off it, but the ball will still reach the boundary. Pujara moves to 74 with that” – the commentator thundered into the microphone with these details, like he was reporting from the front lines of the Normandy Beach on June 6th, 1944. One can argue that the analogy is apt, because Pujara’s insurgency against the second new ball was a crucial battle for India to win and it could turn the tide of the overall war. The real problem though was that Sunny was ‘reporting’. Those 30 words added zero value to the audience who has already witnessed everything he said on HD Television. They might have as well watched it on mute.

For the untrained eye, the 540 balls bowled in a day of Test cricket could be mind numbingly uneventful. A bowler walks tens of yards to his mark, then runs in really fast and bowls one outside the off stump, only for the batsman to leave it alone, so the keeper could collect it and throw it back to the bowler, who will do this all over again.

Except, the bowler is not just running in. Every muscle motion in his action has been carefully chiseled at the confluence of science, art and the human spirit. It has been designed meticulously to add every fractional kmph possible on the ball, stopping just short of permanent damage to the bowler’s body.

He is not hurling just another spherical object. The cricket ball is the most romantic of sports accessories. The symphony that the leather can create with air, ground, saliva and sweat is the stuff that can inspire poetry.

So, when the batsman is leaving it outside his off stump, it is not lack of action. In the .45 seconds he had to make this decision of negotiating the object traveling towards him at 148 KMPH, he has factored in the trajectory of the ball, whether the shinier side is, which way the seam is positioned and hence which way the ball will swing. He has also analysed where it is likely to pitch, what the bounce in that area is and whether it has cracks. Subconsciously,  he has matched all this data with the location coordinates of his off stump and whether any of the aforementioned potentially compromises it’s well being. And then comes the “percentage”. If he could rock back on his right foot and caress the ball into the 12 odd meters between the gentlemen standing at point and covers, could he have enough time to run 22 yards? Probably. But then, the man at cover has a reputation and this ball is likely to travel towards his left, which is his ‘right’ side. Is one run worth the risk of losing his wicket at this stage of the game? NO. And that is when he lets it go past him.

.45 seconds can be a very long time.

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That is just one of the 540 battles that happen in a day. And all great battles need to be immortalised by great literature. That precisely is the role commentary plays in test cricket – it augments mere reality into high drama. No, I am not talking about the iconic moments – Richie Benaud on the underarm or Tony Greig on the desert storm. Those must be easy I assume for the orator. It is between those moments that you need an artist in the commentary box. To  paint the mental tension around a puff of dust, put a defence in context, spread-eagle the anatomy of a cover drive, notice a grip, a crack, create legends out of men, women and their exploits, smell a rain cloud, searche for irony in statistics, make you laugh, set the stage for a decision, notice wrists, make you cry…

But alas, what we have had on show in Indian commentary lately, has just been reportage. Stating the obvious, hyperbolic reverence of heroes and having stock lines to describe situations. There is rigour and dedication in it probably, but certainly no art. No wit. And as a result, it tragically takes away from the TV watching experience rather than add to it. I know that Murali Vijay stepping out to Lyon in the last over before lunch was a ‘lapse of concentration’. I know that ‘a wicket here could turn things around’. I know that ‘keeping the scoreboard ticking is important’ or that ‘it was a well directed short ball’. What I am craving to know is the story and the emotion behind them. The nuance of the incident.

Commentary is a relief to a game like music is for the movies. They both have to compliment each other. If Morricone or Ilayaraja had just played sad or happy music corresponding to the footage, those films would have lacked magic. Lacked the spell. I yearn for Ian Chappel’s insight or Bumble’s wit or Dada’s genius or Cozier’s trivia. Mostly, I think I just miss Harsha. Sorely.

Here is an example of what commentary can be:

As I type this line, I just heard “This is an important innings by Pujara. A big first innings lead for Australia would not have been good news” and some one else concurred “Yes, India getting a sense that something will happen in this game now”. Then went on to add “there is every reason to believe India might even take a lead now” (we are 16 runs behind at lunch with 4 wickets to go). Another just cracked a joke I believe, but I can’t remember what it was. Must have been a ‘brain fade’.

Pro tip: If you want something on audio that remotely matches the intensity in Pujara’s eyes today, may I recommend muting your TV and playing this instead:

 

BOM.

So the other day, I was walking from my home in Mylapore towards the beach. It was early in the morning – a time when Chennai is always at its glorious best , untouched by the stress of the day ahead. Never one to disappoint with its beauty, ugliness or irony, it offered me multiple stories, which like any other day, I recorded on my social stream. There was the beach that caught a bad case of Ganesh:

The Cooum in all her glory:

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And then this restaurant that caught my attention, for various reasons.

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Now, thats where it all began. But we will get to that in a bit.

Why did I share it? I liked the irony and the juxtaposition.

Was that a judgement on the establishment? Hardly. It had the same motive as this other tweet, where I enjoyed an effort to rhyme:

Was it a commentary on my language affiliations? No. I love my mother tongue but I write in 4 languages and I paid money to learn three of them. I am in love with words and I wish I could learn more.

Was I propagating regionalism? Nope. I have not lived in my home town for close to 2 decades and I am in love with the city that I call home now.

So it was just a tweet like any of the other 7705 I had typed earlier. But I guess this one unfortunately struck a chord. And good number of you Retweeted it. More unfortunately, it started getting misinterpreted. Not just the original tweet, but others’ sarcasm as well. Like this one:

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Now, I deal with social media for a living and I am familiar with negativity having a higher velocity than its counterpart but this got a bit out of hand. WAY out of hand. And I am as much guilty as anybody else for having caused it (even though I have the right to express myself). While I am not sure why this particular tweet caught everybody’s fancy (I wish my Ganesh beach tweet had met even half this enthusiasm!), it did eventually become a problem and hence needed to be removed.

The people behind this establishment have put in a lot of heart into creating this place and I am sure they have wonderful plans to market it. One look at their Zomato page tells you so much about the love that has gone into building this place. An unintended tweet has caused them a lot of pain and made them feel unwelcome. How about we change that? How about we do the reverse of what a MOB does? Can we help rebuild a bit of what we might have destroyed? If you are in Chennai, why dont you visit this restaurant, enjoy their hospitality and let the world know by tweeting with #Supportnotdiscourage ? Hell, I know Mylapore can use a good Parantha 🙂

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Shanti is going down…

“Is Shanti still standing?”, dad looked up from “The Hindu”, his eyebrows nearly touching the ceiling fan. I had just informed him that the only place showing ‘Kaaka Muttai’ that evening was one of his older haunts. A connoisseur of the art form, and a weekly patron of the Mylapore theatre scene, he had curbed his indulgence with Cinema halls a few years back. Not because his fascination for films had waned or because his legs had become troublesome lately. But there were just too many loud entities in the halls these days for him – idiots and cell phones alike.

I had been on ‘Book my show’ for over fifteen minutes now and mom still couldn’t believe that the man had agreed to come to the theatre for a film – a quest in which she had been unsuccessful for years – high praise for a film whose popular credits stopped with the producers. ‘Shanti’ was in the news recently for being yet another single screen in the city, which was about to be demolished in exchange for a multiplex and dad could not believe that they were still open for business. He was reasonably convinced that BookMyShow.com had made an error in judgment and sold us tickets to a place that was all rubble. And this started showing in all the conversations he would have that day:

Friend / Family: Hello uncle, how have you been?

Dad: Have they not demolished Shanti yet?

Friend / Family: How is your health?

Dad: Karthi is saying they sell tickets!

Friend / Family: How is your work at the mission?

Dad: Did you not read that news article where they said they were bringing it down?

By the time we drove in at 10 PM, he was somewhat convinced about the structure’s existence in general. Always the middle class haunt, ‘Shanti’ had a large bike stand and just a small, rain-drenched corner for cars. Pu-Yi loved the rains. And corners, if I may. The Hyundai Santro was the first thing of value I really ‘owned’ with my money and when the time came to name it, it had to be Pu-Yi – the emperor immortalized by Betrulucci in the film that reasonably changed my life. The film Dad had brought me to watch in the theatre adjacent to Shanti, decades back.

The parking guaIMG_5856rd solved the mystery of the demolition by mentioning that work would begin in a few weeks. Dad gave him a nod with an Einsteinish reverence. But the theatre looked in no mood to go down. The old-school lobby still had elaborately framed pictures of past glory, featuring the yesteryear star, whose family owned the place. There was more teak than steel everywhere. The old wooden box office was now being used as storage. The mosaic staircase, carved hand rails, and a defunct pop corn machine spoke of decades of tinsel glory. The hall itself was a time capsule – ceiling fans, curtained screen, cast iron guardrails, et al.

But clearly, time had had a say in things lately and it showed. The chipped stone floor had just been mopped and parts of it still damp. The walls were a strange combination of red and white. The top half was off-white and the bottom half was a hue of red… oh wait – that’s just decades of paan stains. It was difficult to imagine that this place must have once been home to much joy and opulence. The chairs were creaky and the cushion looked damp. I wasn’t sure about leaning on them at any point. In fact I watched the entire film leaning forward. Appa and Amma sitting in the row ahead of me however had so such bourgeoisie reluctance. He leaned back comfortably like it was a ‘La-Z-boy’ in his living room. The crowd was an eclectic mix – children, drunk revelers, large families, … it was a Saturday evening. Understandably, everyone took a while to settle down, which was much after the opening credits. The decibel levels weren’t coming down and a feeling of guilt was creeping in on the decision to bring dad here of all places. Which is strange. Because in the time he used to bring us to the theatre on his Kinetic Honda, it somehow was never about the theatre. We blindly believed in Dad’s taste and discretion and it meant that the Nagarajans watched only the best and all of the best – venue was a detail.

Then something happened. In probably the most amazing opening act in Indian cinema in a long time, ‘Kaaka Muttai’ began. And pretty much silenced everything else inside that hall for a couple of hours. Including the high decibel guilt in my head. Chennai always knew when to shut up.

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During the intermission, I noticed dad was sitting on a chair with a questionable back and I wanted to ask him to swap with me. But then I looked at my neighbor who had by then passed out almost into the Biriyani packet in his hand and I curbed my enthusiasm. At the end of 110 minutes of mesmerizing cinema, I finally walked up to the mezzanine aisle. Dad joined me to watch the end credits together and he walked out like he was exiting a Broadway theatre on 42nd street. On the drive back in Pu-Yi, we had our usual 20 minute review of the film – from casting decisions to screenplay to production design.

Clearly, that night didn’t do much in terms of alleviating his discomfort with reclining chairs or indifferent audiences. But somewhere, I feel we kindled his love for Cinema in a dark hall. Ever so slightly. Because two months hence, I am back on Bookmyshow.com, looking at tickets for ‘Thani Oruvan’.